Personal Policy on Violent Intervention

28 Jun 2013

It's getting to the point where I need to have a policy on this.

Outliers can be ignored, but trends require thinking at a higher level of abstraction, and this is the second time this month.

Most recently: I'm riding down Clerkenwell Rd on a Thursday afternoon. The traffic banks up, and the left side is blocked by a scooter. In front of him is a dropped bike and an angry cyclist. I pull over onto the footpath and dismount.

Several people have stopped. They're standing, inert, in a wide circle. I'm the closest.

The cyclist is shouting at the scooter driver, who is sitting impassively on his vehicle. As I watch, the cyclist walks over, grabs him by the shoulders, and shakes him.

What's my move?

There are a lot of things to consider.

  • This situation looks as though it's escalating, though slowly.

  • I've got some sympathy for the cyclist. I didn't see it, but probably the scooter driver pulled a dick move and directly threatened his life, face, or ability to walk again. But: that means he gets to be angry, or to call the cops, not to get violent.

  • The footpath is largely clear, so I have the option to simply leave. Perhaps the crowd is somehow fuelling this? If so, my presence makes it worse.

  • Somebody should call the cops. Probably somebody has. Getting the phone out, unlocking it, remembering the UK emergency number and dialling would be distracting and take some time - probably a minute or so. I'm standing close enough that this could potentially put me in danger.

  • Adding more people into a tense situation can sometimes escalate it, especially if you don't know exactly what you're doing. I don't want to be the idiot who made a situation involving shouting and shoving turn deadly, out of some inner need to be the hero.

  • I'm not trained to execute a rapid and safe disarming of an angry opponent. If the situation escalates into a proper fight, somebody will get seriously hurt, quite probably me.

  • Fights are dangerous. It's not like the movies. People die from a single punch. Lives are destroyed by permanent injuries or criminal proceedings.

  • I am not happy to stand by. In the absence of formal authorities or people with specific training, if Somebody needs to do something, then my name is Somebody. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

I hesitate, not sure that this warrants intervention. The attacker pulls the driver, still on the scooter, to the ground, goes back to his bike, and removes the D-lock. The driver is trying to right his scooter. There's a scream from behind me. Now:

  • This situation is potentially lethal.

  • This situation may develop extremely quickly.

  • I have a few options. I have my bike available as a sort of 'fence'. I have my own lock. I still have the phone, but nobody is going to arrive in time to make a difference. I have the phone's camera, if that has any deterrent value. I can talk to bystanders. I can talk to the driver (why the hell isn't he running away?). I can talk to the attacker.

I talk to the attacker.

"Mate, it's not worth it. They'll put you in jail, not him."

He doesn't acknowledge me, standing there, holding the lock. The driver rights his scooter. Nobody else is moving.

The driver gets on his scooter, starts it, and flees up the footpath, because the road is blocked by the attacker's bike. As the attacker chases him on his bike, I lose track of them. I don't know how the story ends, but I'd be surprised if he caught up and continued his attack. I'd also be quite surprised if the attacker was caught by police. I don't even know if anybody called them.

The end result wasn't too bad but it could have been better. I debrief over a cup of tea. If it had started to go very wrong, I don't know what I would have done, which probably means that I would have done nothing.

I biased towards taking the minimum possible action because there wasn't time to consider all the relevant information. But there rarely is. This means that any response would need to be based on instinct - often a very bad idea - or policy.

I think most people don't react at all because they haven't thought about this in advance. First-responders, soldiers and police act faster because they have.

My actions here were largely ineffective, because I hadn't decided, in advance, how I handle these events.

What's your personal policy on violent intervention?